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TransLink’s Compass card gets a rocky rollout, icy reception in Vancouver

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson passes through Compass fare gates at Richmond-Brighouse Station. Thousands of Vancouver transit users jammed complaint lines on Jan. 4.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Thousands of Vancouver transit users jammed complaint lines on Monday – the first workday after the trouble-plagued smartcard became mandatory – as some riders found themselves with worthless cards or being incorrectly charged for rides.

The new Compass card replaced monthly passes and paper tickets from machines. But for those riders who had bought passes or went online to load value onto the cards, it appeared that the target of two hours to update cards wasn't being met.

Others said that according to their online statements or card readers at gates, they'd been charged for rides they hadn't taken.

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Lloyd Bauer, TransLink's vice-president in charge of the Compass card's rollout, said the system fell behind after 70,000 people signed up for cards in the past five days.

"The last few days have been the biggest challenge," Mr. Bauer said. "We're expecting this is an unusual peak."

He suggested that to avoid problems, people should consider loading their cards as early as possible before trying to use them.

The difficult rollout is just one more chapter in a lengthy saga for many Canadian cities attempting to introduce smartcards on their transit systems.

Toronto, which started working on a Presto card in 2006, is not expecting a full rollout throughout the system until the end of 2017.

Winnipeg riders, who had been told they would be getting smartcards in 2013 or 2014, were informed last year that they wouldn't arrive until 2016. And Calgary, after years of struggle, simply gave up on smartcards last year.

Vancouver has been labouring to bring in its Compass card since 2009.

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It was initially tested for a couple of years with a small group of users, then expanded in 2014 to students at Vancouver's postsecondary institutions who receive transit passes automatically as part of their registration.

Last year, the card was introduced to the West Coast Express rail system.

But it didn't become required for most transit users until New Year's Day.

Riders who bought and loaded cards at machines located at transit stations or London Drugs stores were credited instantly. But many people who loaded their cards online in the past few days said they had to wait hours for the credit to show up – far longer than the two-hour goal specified by TransLink.

To add to the mess, the agency's transit lines appeared to be overwhelmed on Monday as people returned to work after the Christmas holidays, just as Vancouver experienced its first winter snowfall. The Canada Line was briefly out of commission because of an icing problem.

Glenn Stensrud said he had to call TransLink twice on Monday to ask why he appeared to be getting charged for more than he was using. The first time he called, the promotions and marketing consultant said he waited 24 minutes. The second time, 32.

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"They should have known that was going to happen," said Mr. Stensrud, who suggested the agency could have brought in more staff for the rollout.

At the busy Broadway station of the Canada Line, two transit workers were kept busy Monday afternoon answering questions as people struggled to understand the new system. Could they still use the old paper tickets, called faresavers, which have been sold in booklets for years at convenience stores? Could they trade in the value of those faresavers and put them on a Compass card? What did they have to do to buy a single ticket?

One rider, who identified himself only as Paul, said he bought a monthly pass, but when he tapped out of the system, the machine indicated he had been charged the cost of a single ride, amounting to $2.75.

"Everyone's upset today," he said. "One guy down at Waterfront Station, he was saying, 'I haven't even used my card and I got charged $12.'"

Vancouver's vast transit network, which covers an area about twice the size of Toronto, gets a million rides a day.

About 130,000 riders usually buy monthly passes. So far, about 100,000 people have done so, with the vast majority buying them in the last five days. Another 350,000 have bought Compass cards and loaded money onto them.

TransLink spokeswoman Jennifer Morland said the agency expects about 800,000 people to buy cards.

Until it gets closer to that number, at least one gate will be left open at each station to allow riders to pass through even if they are having problems with their cards or haven't yet bought one.

"We want to see more people transition to Compass before we close the gates," she said.

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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